By: Steve Pulaski
BH Tilt and Bad Robot Productions are quickly becoming two of my favorite studios for movies largely because they're willing to take risks for genres that need it most. In a time when the cinema is congested with a reboot of The Grinch, another Halloween movie, the umpteenth remake of A Star is Born, and give or take two or three sequels, for all the talk the American public does about wanting original, adult-skewing entertainment, fewer and fewer people seem to rush out to see the very films they've requested be made. The folks at Bad Robot, director Julius Avery, and J. J. Abrams (who serves as executive producer on Overlord) love taking chances in terms of favoring high-concept, high-octane concepts, and it's fitting that in the same year BH Tilt gave us Upgrade — which you probably still need to see — the Cloverfield gang gives us a uniformly solid work of contemporary, $38 million Nazisploitation.
When The Cloverfield Paradox shocked sci-fi fans everywhere by appearing on Netflix mere moments after the Patriots/Eagles Super Bowl concluded, speculation of where the Cloverfield franchise would go next floated to Overlord. It was understandable, and I'll admit I bought into early hype that it was part of the series (until it suddenly wasn't). While that may not help the box office receipts, it nonetheless takes the pressure off what is otherwise an entirely acceptable, creative diversion for all involved. Unlike a work a part of a grandiose "universe" or a reboot that makes you recall what you appreciated or disliked about the original, Overlord gets you to pause and smile at another film ambitious enough to ride its own wave and give a number of unrecognized actors their time to shine. A sometimes relentless splatter-fest with strong suspense and touches of body horror, it's essentially the best video game movie not based on a video game.
The story follows a small squad of soldiers who are dropped behind enemy lines in lieu of D-Day for the purpose of destroying a radio-jamming tower as swiftly as possible. Our two primary protagonists are Boyce (Jovan Adepo, Fences), whose softer-side gets in the way of Ford's (Wyatt Russell, Everybody Wants Some!!) gruffer side. Leveling whatever tension exists between the two are Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine), their commanding officer), the reactionary Tibbet (John Magaro), and Chase (Iain De Caestecker, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The group comes across a scavenger named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) and her younger brother (Gianny Taufer), which soon leads to a tense encounter with a tyrannical mad scientist who is overseeing a plethora of dangerous and unruly Nazi experiments (played by Pilou Asbæk, Michael Shannon's doppelganger, in a truly great performance).
The "boots on the ground" opening sequence of Overlord sets the tone rather effectively. Things start fast and rarely let up as calamity swirls around a country rocked by World War II, and one even about to be further offset by the presence of zombies and mutants. Avery conducts this film on a large, open-scale that is conducive to all the madness occurring at any given time insofar that there always feels like there is a huge ground to be scaled at all times. These men and women are tough, but they are at times clearly overmatched by just how far these suited goons with no shred of morality will go, which explains why so much of Overlord is gunfire and gore.
Back to my video game comparison. Overlord clearly takes its inspiration from the gaming sphere. The film most closely mirrorsWolfenstein in combat and context, but my generation will also point out the inevitable "Nazi zombies" comparison, in reference to the mini-game that kept Call of Duty: World at War still relevant during the days of the first and second Modern Warfare. Matt Evans' editing practically has us looking over the shoulders of these comrades as they navigate dark quarters, narrowly escape explosions, or find themselves just barely below-ground when caught in enemy crossfire. Convention reminds us that comparing a film to a video-game — or worse, a video game adapted into a film — spells bad news, but Avery's film isn't reliant on such gimmicks as much as it uses them to compliment a story set on a vast battleground.
On top of that, the action is crisp and well-shot, and the suspense is there, most notably in the aforementioned sequence where Asbæk's SS officer pays a visit to Chloe just as Boyce, Ford, and the others have arrived. Adepo and Russell take turns in the limelight and show why they should be trusted with larger roles on a more recurring basis, and once again, Bad Robot takes a bygone subgenre (first the kaiju, now Nazisploitation) and revitalizes it with a competently made chiller that's easy to roll with for 109 minutes.